THOUGHTS ON LEADERSHIP
A LEGACY OF LEADERSHIP
EDITOR’S NOTE: Thoughts on Leadership columnist Michael DeGrosky retired in June from his position as the Fire Protection Bureau Chief for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. DeGrosky’s fire career began as a volunteer firefighter while he was still in high school and spanned more than 40 years; he was a hotshot, fire management specialist, fire management officer, volunteer fire department captain, career fire department training officer and, for 20 years, a consultant and leadership advisor to fire and emergency service organizations. Editor Laura King talked to DeGrosky about his role with the IAWF and his longtime contribution to Wildfire magazine. The interview is edited for length and clarity.
LK: How are you’re staying involved with wildland fire and wildland fire fighting?
MD: I’m still doing informal coaching and mentoring with former colleagues. I am attending the occasional virtual conference workshop or webinar to stay connected with people that I don’t see or contact regularly. IAWF has been awesome in that regard. I caught a little bit of the Cohesive Strategy Workshop. And the Ignite Talks have been really a good way to stay in touch. I’m writing the column and that feels good; it gives me a way to still have a little bit of influence. And I do a bit of work for money here and there. For example, I recently facilitated an after-action review for the park service.
LK: You’ve played some important roles with IAWF. How did you become member and eventually a board member, and what did you and/or the board accomplish during that time?
MD: I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly when I joined; it was in the early nineties, shortly after the association appeared on the scene as an association, which was 1991. My entry point was Wildfire magazine. I got exposed to, to wildfire magazine at work, and became a subscriber. I was interested in the association. And that led to me making a pilgrimage out to Fairfield, Washington, to meet Jason Greenlee and Maria Greenlee, the folks who helped dream up the idea of the IAWF and had formed the organization that had been IAWF’s embryo . . . and I tried to be as active of a member as I could, after after joining. And then as far as the board goes, in 1997, I received an interesting offer; Jason contacted me and asked me to join the board, and at the same time asked me if I would be the board president.
I just found a set of board minutes from before I was on the board where they discussed me and, and that idea. The board president at the time resigned her position – she was the first board president, Dr. Andi Koonce – and nobody wanted to step up and be the president, and several people were leaving the board. They had discussed inviting me to join the board and simultaneously inviting me to be the board president, because Jason knew that I had been doing a fair amount of work with nonprofits. So after, after some negotiation, I accepted that, that role and that began my tenure with the board (1998-1999). I continued with the board until I took a new job. At the end of my second term, I stepped away and handed the reigns over to Bruce Suenram (2000-2003). And I’ve been a member ever since.
The thing that was most important that we accomplished was the survival of the association. I took over the board at a time where were reestablished an active board. There were a couple of people from the previous board who were willing to stay on, and Jason had some ideas. I had some friends that I thought might join, and we quickly realized after we reestablished the board that the association was financially insolvent and had other issues.
Assuring the survival and the continuation of the association was huge, and establishing the association’s strategic direction. I just went and took a quick look at the association’s website just a few minutes ago and realized that while there’s been a lot of evolution over the intervening 20 years, we put the association on a path – the mission we established back in the 1997 is the same today.
The association is just really carrying out that mission in a great way. So I think putting the association on its strategic footing was really big. And I think that’s proven out by the fact that that strategy has endured for 25 years.
Part of that was to make a very intentional pivot. The association’s roots were really in creating the international Journal, and managing a very large database. It was oriented toward providing some very needed things for the research community. And that has been extremely valuable. The IJWF is the go-to journal for people working in wildland fire research, but we made a very intentional pivot to become more of a membership organization in the 1990s.
One thing that did occur during my board tenure was our partnership with CSIRO, which essentially assured the continuation and ongoing success of the association.
At the time we had to beg people to come and join the board. People would come onto the board and then choose to leave because they were concerned about conflicts of interest with their day job. We had to go out and beat the bushes and beg people to be on the board. And now it’s a desirable thing, it’s competitive; you can apply for a board and not get accepted because there are more people than there are positions.
Jason had an amazing vision for what the association could be. And I think the board during my tenure picked up that vision and turned it into reality by broadening the appeal of the association to a much larger slice of the wildland fire community.
LK: What were the biggest and most important issues that you tackled during your tenure on the board?
MD: Firefighter safety. That was right at the time of the first Wildland Fire Safety Summit, which is what it was originally called. It started out as the Canada, U.S. Firefighter Safety Summit; it expanded into the Canada, Australia, U.S. Safety Summit, which eventually became just a safety summit. And then became the Wildland Fire Safety Summit and Human Dimensions Conference combined. That was a huge, what the association has done to advance and communicate and provide leadership regarding the issue of firefighter safety, and providing two key publications, the Journal and Wildfire, one serving an essential role in the research community, and the other serving a really important role in the practitioner community. Wildfire has evolved to serve a broader readership now. Those were big issues, firefighter safety, and continuing those publications, and conferences.
Conferences were a thing that the association was doing every couple or three years. When we established the strategic direction for the association in 1997, we decided that conferences were a core part of what the IAWF needed to do. We’ve continued to build that service as a core part of our brand. And the I AWF is now in partnership with Association for Fire Ecology (AFE). We’re filling a niche that nobody else even come close to filling.
LK: IAWF did a readership survey in which members listed some areas of importance to them; I’m interested to know what you think are the most important issues IAWF needs to tackle.
MD: Well, I think, I think the current focus interest on diversity, equity and inclusion within the wildland fire service is the one of the big topics of our time. I think fire-adapted communities and community adaptation to fire is just huge. I think smoke is going to be an issue that will drive fire policy into the future, the health effects of smoke on firefighters and public health will be a driving issue. The other one is a continuation of what the association already does – linking practitioners and the research, not just the physical science, but the social science.
LK: What is your motivation to continue to write Thoughts on Leadership?
MD: The history of the column is that in 2001, Lark McDonald, who is the president and CEO of Mission- Centered Solutions, approached me about becoming more active in the association and wondering how he and his company might make some contribution to the association. We conceived of this idea of Lark writing a regular column for Wildfire. I think the name Thoughts on Leadership was Lark’s chosen name. Lark wrote the column for about a year. As his business started to grow, I would fill in for when he couldn’t make deadline. I was working on my master’s in leadership studies. And then, I think it was about 2004, Lark’s company really took off and his commitments were such that he had to step back and I took over the column. I’ve been writing this column for 18 years. I would love to find somebody to mentor into taking over the column. I enjoy writing the column. If I could find somebody who I thought would stick with it and had a good knowledgeable underpinning I would happily mentor that person into the role.
As far as motivation, honestly, it is the place where I get to merge my two passions – wildland fire and leadership. About 20 years ago I started studying leadership formally, first in a master’s program, then doing a PhD. Helping people learn about leadership is big passion. And wildland fire is what I’ve been doing my entire life. It’s a place where I get to merge those two things. And that’s my motivation. Retired or not, I’m very interested in improving the wildland fire community, helping the wildland fire community be as good as it can be, and I really love helping people understand leadership and being the best leaders that can be. The column is a great way to merge those two things.
About the Author
Mike DeGrosky recently retired as chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Forestry Division. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.